ANN ARBOR, Mich. – How is Michigan football a top 20 team in the country without playing a single game? It really boils down to these six factors.
1. Consistency under Jim Harbaugh
The most obvious reason for Michigan’s ranking: Since Jim Harbaugh arrived in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines are almost always among the top 20 teams in the nation, according to the AP poll.
Since Michigan first entered the top 25 in Week 5 of the 2015 season, the team has been ranked in 70 out of the 76 AP poll releases.
Of those 70 appearances, Michigan has been ranked in the top 20 a total of 73 times and the top 10 a total of 33 times.
Few teams have been ranked as frequently and as highly as Michigan since Harbaugh arrived, and presence in the polls is a major factor in preseason voting.
It’s also important to point out that in five seasons, Michigan has greatly overachieved its preseason ranking once (2015) and underachieved once (2017), with the other three years proving more or less accurate in terms of preseason expectations.
The notion that the Wolverines are typically overrated in preseason polls has almost no basis in fact during the Harbaugh era.
2. Brand name
Just because Michigan has validated its preseason ranking most seasons doesn’t mean the Block M won’t help the cause.
Take a look at the 2020 preseason top 25. It’s littered with the biggest brands in college football, including Texas, Texas A&M, USC, Tennessee and the other obvious powerhouses.
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There’s no denying Michigan benefits from that same inherent bias.
By the time the season comes to an end, that bias will have been filtered out by the actual results, but Michigan landing in the top 20 without playing a game isn’t a surprise. In fact, it’s the fifth year in a row.
We also can’t ignore the role upsets have played in elevating Michigan to the top 20.
When the Big Ten announced fall football had been reinstated, its members were added back into the rankings. Michigan debuted at No. 23.
Since then, Texas, Texas A&M, UCF, Mississippi State and Oklahoma have all dropped below Michigan because of upset losses. The Wolverines have been passed by the likes of SMU and Virginia Tech, but the net result has been positive, and it looks like Michigan will be a top 20 team when it takes the field in three weeks against Minnesota.
4. Overall talent
Roster turnover has always been a major part of college football, but never more than now.
In addition to players graduating and leaving early for the NFL draft, today’s landscape includes transfers and opt outs. With so many variables, the preseason rankings are often a reflection of the overall talent on a roster.
Michigan’s roster includes players from the 2016-2020 recruiting classes, which were ranked eighth, fifth, 22nd, eighth and 14th. Michigan clearly has top 20 talent, and that’s reflected in the rankings.
According to the 247 Sports team talent composite rankings, Michigan has the 15th most talented roster in the country -- third in the Big Ten behind Ohio State and Penn State.
Preseason rankings are so unpredictable because there aren’t any actual results to base them on. Oftentimes, the sheer talent on a roster can act as a guide.
5. Offensive potential
No matter how much everyone talks about the importance of the offensive and defensive lines, people love playmakers -- especially flashy playmakers.
Well, Michigan’s offense could be more exciting to watch this year, and that potential might have something to do with the lofty ranking.
Joe Milton is unproven at the quarterback position, but he was a highly rated prospect and has gotten rave reviews out of Michigan’s practices.
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Milton will be surrounded by four talented running backs in Zach Charbonnet, Hassan Haskins, Chris Evans and Blake Corum. That’s a strong combination of speed, strength and home run potential, both in the running and short passing games.
At receiver, Michigan has brought in some of the fastest players in the country. On top of the reliable Ronnie Bell and emerging Giles Jackson, the Wolverines added A.J. Henning and Roman Wilson -- two burners from the 2020 recruiting class.
Add Cornelius Johnson and Erick All to the mix, and Michigan’s offense is taking the shape of what Josh Gattis has been preaching since he arrived in Ann Arbor: “speed in space.”
College football analysts like big names. Michigan has several candidates to make names for themselves this year on offense.
6. Defensive stars
The 2020 season might be a difficult one for Don Brown, as Michigan’s unproven cornerbacks and problematic interior defensive line face tests against some of the best quarterbacks in the country.
Last season, the Wolverines struggled to get pressure against tougher opponents and got exposed against talented playmakers in the Wisconsin, Penn State and Ohio State games.
Throw in a Week 1 game against Tanner Morgan and Minnesota this year, and Brown has his work cut out for him.
Even though there are questions facing the defense, Michigan also has a handful of stars.
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Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye are the most obvious pair, and they’ll start across from each other at defensive end. That’s an extremely important position. Having two reliable pass rushers on the edges obviously helps Michigan’s defensive perception, even if there might be a weakness in between them.
Last season, Hutchinson and Paye combined for 22.5 tackles for loss and 11 sacks. On paper, they hide a lot of the issues facing the defensive line as a whole.
Cam McGrone is another budding star at the heart of the defense, picking up right where Devin Bush left off at middle linebacker. He earned a starting spot midway through 2019 and finished with 66 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and four sacks.
The secondary doesn’t have an established star, but Daxton Hill has that potential and is already a household name for anyone who follows recruiting. One of the fastest players in the country and the No. 1 safety in the 2019 class, Hill could exactly what the secondary needs after the departures of Ambry Thomas and Lavert Hill.